Rabbit follows in father’s footsteps

BY ALLISON COCHRAN
University of Arkansas School of Journalism
11/23/2020 09:00 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Cherokee artist Traci Rabbit, 51, smiles next to some of the products in her studio. Rabbit was recently announced as a Cherokee National Treasure. COURTESY
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Shown is a photo of the late Cherokee artist Bill Rabbit and his daughter Traci, who is also an artist. Traci said her relationship with her father was special to her. COURTESY
SALINA – Traci Rabbit pushed her purple tinted sunglasses to the top of her head, moving her hair back with them. As she sat outside, the sun was going down on an Oklahoma fall evening. “As an artist, what we’re going through and what we’re experiencing, will come out on canvas,” Rabbit said.

“I’ve really enjoyed painting the Native American woman and showing her strengths, dignity, pride, even her vulnerable side,” Rabbit said.

Rabbit, 51, is a Cherokee artist who resides in Salina. She was recently named a Cherokee National Treasure for 2020 for her artwork.

The award is given to people who have made contributions to preserve art, language and culture within the Cherokee tribe. Though Rabbit was awarded this year, she’s no stranger to the honor.

Her father, Bill Rabbit, was also a Cherokee artist. Bill died in 2012 at age 65 due to years of complications from Agent Orange, the defoliant that was used in Vietnam for chemical warfare, Traci said. Bill served two tours of duty in Vietnam. 

Bill is known for his Native paintings and had received awards for his artwork. He too, was awarded a Cherokee National Treasure in 2011. For Traci, to follow in her father’s footsteps, it’s hard for her to put into words. She said it’s just something that she feels in her heart.

When she found out she was being awarded, Traci said, it was overwhelming and emotional for her but was humbling, honoring and surreal wrapped in one.

Traci has many Native paintings, but she was given this honor because of her particular piece titled “Transitions.”

She recalls when her dad won the award, saying that out of all of the awards he had won, the Cherokee National Treasure was the most special to him because he was being recognized by his people. Traci says she completely understands that feeling now.

Bill was also a full-time artist. Traci said her dad had been a full-time artist since 1979. Karen Rabbit, 71, Bill’s wife and Traci’s mom, recalls when her husband first became a full-time artist. Karen had just recently quit her job when her husband decided to be a permanent artist. She told him that if she had to, then she’d go back to work. Karen never had to go back to work because of his success as an artist. Finances could be tight at times, but everything worked out, Karen said. 

Traci and Karen say that Bill didn’t have a particular style of painting. “He probably died with more imagination than most artists will ever have in a life,” Karen said. 

Karen said he could sit down with a paint brush and canvas and just paint whatever he felt. He especially loved using bright colors.

Bill and Traci had a special relationship, and art was a factor that would make their bond so special. 

“My mom once told me, that the day I was born, my dad took me and never let me go,” Traci said. “We were very like-minded, we were two peas in a pod.”

Traci mainly learned how to paint through her father. “Not only did I have an exceptional parent, but I had a best friend, a mentor, a business partner, an art teacher. He was like five people in one person,” she said. “God blessed me with good parents.”

Traci said that she not only had a connection with him because he was her dad, but they also had a deep soul connection as well. “When you have that like-minded attitude and the connection of art brought us even closer.”

Karen said Traci enjoyed what Bill did, so he grabbed on to that and that’s where their unique relationship started. 

Karen said her daughter held her father on a pedestal. 

Traci has been a full-time artist since she graduated college in 1993. She never had any intentions on being an artist after graduation. She aspired to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs or Cherokee Nation. “God just had different plans for me,” she said.

After graduating, Traci immediately started working with her dad, mainly helping out on the business side of the art, but was also selling some of her work as well. Eventually, she began her full-time work as an artist as well. 

Rabbit Studios, located in Pryor, is a working studio where her father painted, which Traci still paints and operates at today. Rabbit Studios is also where the production of Traci’s gift line of coffee mugs, art tiles, mousepads and other merchandise is done. Merchandise and artwork can be found on her website. 

When she first began painting, she said her first paintings were mainly of woodland style, which Traci describes of being more of a rural setting and trees, but she has since developed her style.

“Your art starts to evolve as you do as a human being,” she said. Traci enjoyed sharing her perspective of what a Native American woman should be, so her art started veering into a direction of painting Native women, but her art is not limited to just that.

Traci said that being the daughter of someone that is a well-known artist, that she initially wanted to paint something that was different from his work, she eventually grew into her technique of artwork.

Though she wanted her work to be different from her father’s, she said some of her favorite art pieces are the ones that she collaborated on with her dad. She holds special memories with those art pieces.

Traci said her artwork is purposeful, but said her dad’s work are all like little members of her family. With tears forming in her eyes, “through his work, he’ll never be forgotten,” she said. Pointing to her heart, she said, “there’s still no words that could convey what is in here.”

Traci said that the past 10 years of her father’s life they collaborated quite a bit. “I think that he was teaching me,” she said. “I think he was starting to prepare me for when he went home.”

Karen said when her husband died she remembers her daughter was completely devastated and was not a functioning human for a while. She said when her daughter started painting again that she remembers telling her, “Traci, you don’t need your dad, you can do this on your own. Your art and your abilities stand on their own.”

Karen said her daughter has really come into her own in the past two to three years. She said she’s hard working, just like her dad.

Traci said after her father’s passing, she was most proud because she kept pushing on.

Before Bill’s death, she remembers him saying, “don’t ever be like a pond, a pond has stagnant water. When I’m no longer here, I want you to keep moving forward, like the river. Just keep moving like the water.”

Traci said she credits her father to most of the lessons she’s learned in her life.

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